NHL free agency is 30 days away from Monday, but between now and then is the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, the NHL draft, and any number of trades that will go down. Some of the NHL trade market movement is expected, like Jack Eichel, but history tells us a few will be unexpected, too. Just what the Pittsburgh Penguins will do in the next few weeks is also more conjecture than knowledge.
The Penguins’ defense tied for the fifth-highest scoring blue line with 28 goals and was increasingly good throughout the season.
Increasingly good is probably an understatement, as Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci solidified their spot as the Penguins second pairing. However, Ceci’s one-year bargain deal is expiring, and he figures to get a healthy raise in 2021-22.
And the Penguins defense did have their Achilles heel exposed in the Round One loss to the New York Islanders.
“When we play hard and defend hard, we are a tough team to defeat,” Marcus Pettersson said in May. “…The Islanders did that more to us than we did to them. They won the most net-front battles.”
So, the Pittsburgh Penguins will have a few decisions to make regarding their blue line. Can they find the money for Ceci? Can they find space for top prospect and LHD P.O. Joseph? Where can they find a little more muscle for those net-front battles?
We project Ceci to get a payday well north of $3 million.
The last question is what we can address with a preliminary watch list. It’s not a deep pool of physical free agent defensemen, at least ones who are competent NHL defenders and more than depth options.
In no particular order:
Unrestricted Free Agent Defensemen
Alex Edler, 35, LHD
Edler is a left-defenseman with aggression, jam, and size. He’s also a defenseman who can lead a power play but ate up minutes on the Vancouver PK this season.
At 35-years old, he is probably on his last contract, and this is not the Edler of three years ago. However, the 6-foot-3, 212-pound defender is a player who could directly address the Penguins’ needs and still fit into their up-tempo system.
After three straight seasons with more than 30 points, Edler sank to just eight points (0-8-8), including no goals in 52 games this season. He did block 118 shots and dish 80 hits.
Edler has been a Canuck for his entire 15-year-career, and his stated desire is to stay put, but life isn’t always fair. Ben Kuzma of the Vancouver Province estimates his next contract to be between $1.5 million and $3.25 million annually.
The grizzled veteran, whose contract with a $6 million AAV expired, will have to accept a significant pay cut.
It’s a bit of a long shot that he winds up in Pittsburgh, but it’s not impossible, either.
Ian Cole, 32, LHD
You remember Cole, 32, and Cole’s issues with Mike Sullivan well, don’t you? Could old friends reunite because each needs something the other brings to the table?
The Penguins need a net-front clearing, gritty defenseman. Ian Cole needs a job. Cole’s three-year deal with a $4.25 million AAV from the Colorado Avalanche is expiring, and he probably won’t get a similar contract.
Colorado curiously traded Cole to Minnesota early in the season for lesser d-man Greg Pateryn.
The flip side is former Penguins assistant general manager Bill Guerin took on more salary to acquire Cole for his blue line.
Cole set a dubious career mark for the fewest hits per game. He delivered just 34 hits in 52 games. Cole’s $3.3 million Denver condo is for sale, so that reunion seems unlikely. A Pittsburgh reunion also seems unlikely, but strange times make for strange bedfellows. However, this is a long-shot squared.
Adam Larsson, RHD
Famously, or infamously, Edmonton Oilers GM Pete Chiarelli traded Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils for Larsson. It wasn’t a great trade for Edmonton, but that’s not on Larsson.
The stable, steady, and snarling righty hit 166 opponents in just 56 games this season. He also blocked 128 shots.
Larsson, 28, will get a solid payday in the range of his expiring deal with a $4.166 million AAV. Any team will have to offer the cash to get his signature on a July 28 deal, so the Pittsburgh Penguins would have to clear salary to make room.
But a stay-home RHD who can be physical and balance an offensive defenseman may be worth a real look. There’s no worry about age or worn tires here.
It’s probably out of the Penguins range, but we don’t have answers to many questions, and if GM Ron Hextall wants to retool the Penguins, this would be a huge get.
Erik Gudbranson, RHD
He played well in his brief stint with the Penguins after they acquired him from Vancouver. He moved the puck surprisingly well, was physical, and Washington Capitals hammer Tom Wilson was on his best behavior.
His stat sheet performance was small, with just one assist in
However, no one saw John Marino coming, and early in the 2019-20 season, Gudbranson was squeezed out of the lineup, and the Penguins salary cap couldn’t afford to carry the $4 million d-man. Away to Anaheim for spare parts he went…
Gudbranson, 29, was a leader with his hometown Ottawa Senators this season and part of their scrappy, relentless culture. He only had four assists this season, but the offense isn’t why you sign Gudbranson.
He suffered an injury after Nashville acquired him at the NHL trade deadline, and played only nine games after the deadline and two playoff games, so he could be both make this list and the coming bargain-basement reclamation UFA list.
Gudbranson has plenty of miles and hits to deliver. As a RHD, he checks a few of the Pittsburgh Penguins boxes, including affordability.